The law is a set of rules enacted by a community or society that regulates behavior. It is a coercive system that enforces its rules by threatening punishments for violations of those rules. The discipline devoted to the study of the law is called jurisprudence.
The main purposes of law are setting standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. The law covers a huge variety of subjects, which are typically grouped into three broad categories: civil law; criminal law; and administrative law. These in turn are further subdivided into a multitude of specific areas. For example, contract law concerns agreements to exchange goods or services; tort law is about injury or wrongdoings; and criminal procedure involves how courts and the police conduct trials. Property law deals with people’s ownership of tangible property such as land and buildings, and their intangible possessions, such as money or shares.
Normative law deals with the principles and values that guide legal systems and individual courts. It includes concepts such as supremacy of the law, equality under the law, accountability to the law, separation of powers, participation in decision-making and legal certainty. It also covers the international legal principles of non-interference with internal affairs and prohibition of colonialism.
In some societies, laws are interpreted and applied by independent judicial bodies that are free to decide whether they apply to particular cases or not. In these “judiciary-based” systems, a principle called stare decisis (“to stand by decisions”) means that if a court makes a ruling on a certain matter and reaches a particular result, the courts in the future must follow that same reasoning when dealing with similar cases. In other systems, a legislative branch sets laws that are binding on courts and the executive branch.
A society’s laws reflect its culture, history and traditions. These may be codified or unwritten, and they often vary from country to country. Nevertheless, there are some common features, including the principle of due process, the supremacy of the constitution, a constitutional guarantee of equality in the courts, and respect for minorities and other socially disadvantaged groups.
In addition, laws can be shaped by the broader political environment in which they operate. For example, the law in a democracy is affected by the balance of power between the legislature and the judiciary; the way that parties to a dispute approach litigation; the extent to which the media is biased and the public has access to information; and the degree to which the state provides public goods and services. For more on these topics, see democratic government; law and society; legal education; and the legal profession.